Worker says she risked discipline if she left job amid storm

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Volunteers, mostly employees from the Mayfield Consumer Products factory, help salvage possessions from the destroyed home of Martha Thomas, in the aftermath of tornadoes that tore through the region several days earlier, in Mayfield, Ky., Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — An employee of the Kentucky candle factory where eight workers were killed by a tornado said Tuesday that a supervisor threatened her with written disciplinary action if she went home early because storms were approaching.

Haley Conder, who worked at the Mayfield Consumer Products factory on and off for 10 years, also questioned why the company did not encourage workers to go home — or at least give them a better understanding of the danger — between a first tornado siren around 6 p.m. Friday and another one around 9 p.m., shortly before the tornado hit.

“They (the company) had from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock to allow us to go home, to tell us really what was going on and that we needed to prepare ourselves for the worst,” Conder told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “It was nothing like that. Not one supervisor told us what was really going on.”

A spokesman for the company insisted that employees were free to leave anytime.

Conder’s comments came on the same day that the state’s governor said Kentucky’s workplace safety agency would look into the eight deaths, which happened as violent weather spawned tornadoes in five states.

Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters that the Kentucky Division of Occupational Safety and Health Compliance would conduct a review. That kind of investigation is routine whenever workers are killed on the job.

“So it shouldn’t suggest that there was any wrongdoing. But what it should give people confidence in, is that we’ll get to the bottom of what happened,” he said.

Conder, 29, said her supervisor threatened to write her up if she left early, and that accumulated write-ups can lead to firing.

More than 100 people were working on holiday candle orders when the twister leveled the facility. The scale of the damage initially stoked fears that scores of workers could be found dead in the rubble.

The company later said many employees who survived left the site and went to homes with no phone service, adding to the confusion over who was missing.

Since then, all workers have been accounted for, according to state and local officials who have spoken to the company. Louisville Emergency Management Director E.J. Meiman said late Monday that authorities now “have a high level of confidence that nobody is left in this building.”

The factory supplies candles to retailers, including Bath & Body Works. It is the county’s third-largest employer.

Mayfield Consumer Products spokesman Bob Ferguson, who works for an outside communications firm, said the company welcomes a review by the state and will cooperate.

Ferguson denied that employees were stuck at the plant or would face retribution if they left.

“Not true. That is absolutely not true. We followed our protocols exactly. Employees, if they decide they want to leave, they’re free to leave,” he said.

Due to a tight labor market, the company had relaxed some of its procedures so that employees were not required to give a reason if they had to leave work during a shift, Ferguson said.

NBC News first reported that employees said they were threatened with discipline if they left early.

Mayfield, home to 10,000 residents and the candle factory, suffered some of the worst damage in the country. The tornado outbreak that killed at least 88 people — 74 of them in Kentucky — cut a path of devastation from Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed, to Illinois, where an Amazon distribution center was heavily damaged.

Six people died in the Illinois warehouse collapse, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has opened an investigation into what happened there. The tornadoes also killed four in Tennessee, two in Arkansas and two in Missouri.

Hundreds of people gathered for a candlelight vigil Tuesday evening on the outskirts of Mayfield.

Prayers went up that the brokenhearted will be “wrapped up in God’s love” and that people “hold on to one another” as the storm-stricken city begins its recovery.

Scarlett Sears, an employee at the factory, said at the vigil she had not seen her co-workers since Friday.

“It’s great for the ones that made it but heartbreaking for everything else, Mayfield, MCP, all of it, heartbreaking,” she said.

J.R. Ramsey, who has worked at the plant for 18 years, said he was still in shock.

“It’s good to see the people that made it,” he said.

Conder said employees sheltered inside the building after the first siren, but were then told to go back to work about a half-hour later “like it was a regular day.”

“Some of us were just clueless,” she added. “Unless family called us and let us know … we had no idea it was coming for us at all.”

Employees sheltered again after the 9 p.m. tornado siren. Conder was in a bathroom when the storm hit.

“I look up and the ceiling is just giving way, like it’s the ocean just coming toward me,” she said, adding she was trapped in rubble for about an hour.

Mark Saxton was working as a forklift operator. After the first storm siren, he said employees were told to go back to work.

“I feel like production was a priority over letting everybody go home,” Saxton said Tuesday in a phone interview. He said he wasn’t threatened with any disciplinary action.

When the second storm siren sounded, he said he took refuge along with the other workers. It wasn’t long before he heard a big boom and “everything shook.”

He said he dropped to the ground, got in a fetal position and “that’s when everything started falling — the walls and everything.” He was trapped by a slab of a concrete wall but was able to extricate himself.

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Associated Press writers Dylan Lovan and Rebecca Reynolds in Louisville, Kentucky, and photographer Gerald Herbert in Mayfield contributed to this report.

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